02/03/2017 4:36PM

Hovdey: Ciaglia turning sparkling wine into Champagne

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Barbara D. Livingston
Champagne Room's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies win propelled her to the Eclipse Award in the 2-year-old Filly division.

Champagne Room is a Breeders’ Cup winner and Eclipse Award champion, and yet the prerace chatter around Sunday’s Grade 2 Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita would lead anyone to believe that she is Daniel heading for the lion’s den, David going up against Goliath, or Jonah about to be swallowed by the whale.

Thus endeth my supply of Old Testament allusions.

In the wake of a breathtaking maiden win and her utter domination of the Grade 2 Santa Ynez Stakes, Unique Bella is already being fitted for some kind of crown. The smart money will be all over her on Sunday to handle the mile with ease at the expense of the divisional champ.

But why don’t we go ahead and run the race anyway?

Champagne Room rocked the Breeders’ Cup last November with her 30-1 upset of the Juvenile Fillies. Nobody saw it coming, least of all Joe Ciaglia, who heads the group of owners who found themselves suddenly at the top of the racing world.

“When you’re the favorite, you’re hoping everything goes right,” Ciaglia said. “There’s a lot less pressure even running in a race like that when you’re 30-1. But at 2 and 3, they can really change quickly. We knew she was training well, so it all just came together.”

Fast forward two months to the Eclipse Awards dinner at Gulfstream Park, where the bubbly flowed and Champagne Room was among the three finalists for the division championship. Tradition was with their filly, especially since Champagne Room also won the Grade 2 Sorrento Stakes at Del Mar, but Ciaglia could hardly choke down his banquet beef.

“None of us were confident because you never know how people will vote,” Ciaglia said. “It was a long two hours to wait. I kept getting texts telling me not to worry, and I was trying to create a little energy at the table. Even then, there was a little delay before the envelope was finally opened.”

Champagne Room received 202 votes, compared to 21 for New Money Honey and 11 for Lady Aurelia, the other finalists.

“I don’t know why I was so nervous,” Ciaglia said.

Thoroughbred racing mixes and matches people like no other sport. Don’t believe it? Take a look at the principal owners throwing down in the Las Virgenes.

Unique Bella races for the Don Alberto Stable, the racing arm of the powerhouse Chilean operation owned by the Solari family’s Bethia Holdings, whose endeavors include transportation, utilities, real estate, wineries, and Thoroughbreds. Carlos Alberto Heller Solari, grandson of the company’s founder, is president.

Champagne Room, trained by Peter Eurton, is owned by a Southern California-based partnership led by Ciaglia, a former Arcadia grocery store night manager turned contractor whose companies include California Landscape & Design and California Skateparks.

After purchasing The Vinery in Kentucky for upward of $14 million, Don Alberto went on a buying spree that stocked the farm with million-dollar broodmares and supplied trainers such as Bill Mott, John Gosden, Neil Drysdale, Bob Baffert, Chad Brown, Todd Pletcher, and Jerry Hollendorfer with high-priced racing prospects. Hollendorfer trains Unique Bella, whose $400,000 yearling price already qualifies as a bargain.

Ciaglia and partners – principally Sharon Alesia – hit a home run with the sale of Grade 1 winner Weemissfrankie in 2012 to Japanese interests. Even so, they try to shop smart. According to Ciaglia, the most they have paid for a horse is the $310,000 they spent on Champagne Room as a 2-year-old in training last year in Florida. She has earned just shy of $1.3 million.

Ciaglia is hardly blue collar anymore, but he began that way. Growing up in Arcadia, he was captivated as a teen by John Henry, the former claimer who became a two-time Horse of the Year and the game’s leading money winner. Ciaglia and his friends were Santa Anita regulars who never missed a John Henry appearance. There were many.

Besides Weemissfrankie – named for the late Frank Alesia – the partnership has also raced stakes winners Pacific Heat, Cheekaboo, and homebred Ashleylussugar, who just last weekend won the Cal Cup Turf at Santa Anita in a thriller over Grade 1 stakes winner What a View. On Wednesday, the partners will be at a Pasadena hotel accepting an award as the owners of the champion California-bred turf horse of 2016.

“No suspense this time,” Ciaglia said. “But I’m very happy he won that race the other day. It would have been a little embarrassing since I’m sure What a View had a lot of support.”

Ashleyluvssugar is also a finalist for California Horse of the Year, although there is a recently retired chestnut with a white blaze who probably has a lock on that one. California something.

But first the Las Virgenes. No matter what happens, Ciaglia and his partners are looking forward to an exciting spring with Champagne Room. This will be her first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup, and she has been turning in solid works that include bullet drills on wet racetracks during the last month. If all goes well, she has races like the Santa Anita Oaks, Ashland Stakes, and Kentucky Oaks on her radar.

“The time off did her good, and Pete says he’s got her fit, so I think she’ll run a good race,” Ciaglia said. “It’s just so much fun owning a horse like her, and the places they can take you.”